June 12, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco
Queens, NY – Those wondering where the vanishing middle-class has gone, probably should have been at Terrace on the Park this week to watch Steamfitters Local 638 graduate a class of 20 — mostly minority — apprentices who, after completing an intensive five-year training program, have now cemented their place in America’s once vibrant economic class.
A quarter of this year’s graduating class of Steamfitters initially entered the five-year training course through the Edward J. Malloy Initiative for Construction Skills, a critically acclaimed pre-apprentice program that draws candidates directly from New York City public high schools.
Rafael Santiago, 23, was one of those students, and now enjoys the kind of success and security others in his often debt-saddled age group can only dream about.
“I would tell anybody [interested in joining the union] to just go for it,” Santiago said on Thursday. “This will change your life.”
The union says that over half of this year’s graduating apprentices come from minority communities — 30 percent African-American, 20 percent Hispanic and 10 percent Asian.
Members of New York’s Building Trades maintain that minority participation could be even greater if the current administration would work with organized labor to crack the affordable housing market, and create a “pipeline to work" by amending the city's 421-a tax abatement program.
“I truly believe the mayor is a union person,” Local 638 President and Construction Skills Chairman/Treasurer Patrick Dolan told LaborPress. “The mayor wants to organize people and make their lives better. I don’t know whether or not they feel it’s too big right now, but the unions are ready and willing to tackle that opportunity.”
Critics, even those committed to helping Mayor de Blasio attack rampant income inequality, argue that the financial burdens of constructing affordable housing in New York City, precludes the cost of union wages.
The Buildings Trades, however, insist that it is, indeed, possible to create jobs that support middle-class careers. Just this week, the New York State AFL-CIO passed a resolution supporting prevailing wage language for all workers on projects receiving lucrative 421-a tax breaks.
Said AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento, “We are united in siding with taxpayers, those in need of affordable housing, and hard-working men and women in fighting for good jobs. Our elected leaders have an opportunity to make history by taking meaningful action to address income inequality and help lift the middle class.”
Dolan indicated that when it comes to the 100 percent affordable housing market, the construction rate may well be too high for organized labor to do the work — but that there is room to be creative.
"We pride ourselves in developing a highly-skilled workforce of steamfitters from all across New York City," the Steamfitters leader said. "Our Metal trades is an approved apprenticeship program in which we offer people who live in the communty an opportuntiy not just to obtain jobs, but to devleop a lifelong career."
Graduating apprentice Terrance McKay, 35, left an unfulfilling career in international marketing to work as a steamfitter at both the World Trade Center and Madison Square Garden.
“This is a great program,” McKay said. “It’s a great way to avoid college debt and earn a $100,000 salary.”